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Going global pays off for Seek

Graham Goldsmith, new chair of employment platform Seek, discusses the organisation's future, from planning for global expansion to managing competitors.

Founded in 1997, Australian online employment and education enterprise Seek operates throughout the Asia Pacific and Americas, covering 2.9 billion potential jobseekers. After seven years on the company’s board, Graham Goldsmith FAICD became its chair in January.

He says staying up-to-date with the latest technology is an essential business practice he brings to the role. “I’m curious about the world of technology and society as we move forward, and a company such as Seek is right at the forefront. When you see the pace of what’s going on in technology and what the path is through that, it’s fascinating.”

For Goldsmith, staying informed means subscriptions to relevant magazines, conversations with well-informed people — he has contacts in the startup community — and taking part in seminars hosted by the AICD and big accounting firms. He has a daughter who lives in San Francisco, so makes a point of catching up with people involved in the local Californian tech scene when he visits her.

It’s fitting that the chair of Seek keeps his skills and knowledge up to date because it is one of the main focuses of the company, which has progressed beyond its roots as an online jobs classifieds site established by brothers Andrew and Paul Bassat in 1997. Seek is now targeting the provision of education to workers as they continue their careers.

“If you look at the company’s purpose, we’re focused on helping people during their working lives; the focus across employment and education makes sense,” he says.

Seek has expanded significantly from its beginnings in Australia, with operations now in 18 countries including New Zealand, China, Brazil, Mexico and Bangladesh. It also has a portfolio of businesses under the umbrella of Seek Investments, including Chinese recruitment provider Zhaopin and Online Education Services — a learning platform founded as a joint venture with Swinburne University of Technology — plus additional partnerships with other universities in Australia and the UK.

Goldsmith says there is a broadening acceptance of micro-credentials and short courses among Australian universities and employers. He stresses these are important as the economy becomes increasingly digital and the need to understand technology increases. In 2018, Swinburne University of Technology, where Goldsmith was chancellor, set up the Centre for the New Workforce. The centre is focused on the digital economy and understanding the technology changes driving it — as well as helping people reach their potential. “For Seek and other companies, there’s definitely a shortage of good people,” he says. “Good people are in high demand coming through our education system. There is opportunity to educate yourself if you want to be educated.”

Goldsmith joined the Seek board in October 2012 after retiring as vice chair/managing director of investment bank Goldman Sachs Australia, where he had worked for 25 years. The board currently includes CEO Andrew Bassat, Emeritus Professor Denise Bradley AC, Vanessa Wallace, Julie Fahey and Michael Wachtel MAICD. Leigh Jasper, the co-founder of Aconex, the world’s most widely used internet collaboration platform for construction, infrastructure and resources projects, joined the board in April.

Having been on the board for seven years before taking over as chair from Neil Chatfield FAICD, Goldsmith was familiar with the company and its issues, processes and key staff. But the additional workload prompted him to reassess his board portfolio, which consists of a mix of listed and unlisted companies as well as philanthropic organisations. He stepped down as chancellor of Swinburne University on 31 January.

Seek stats

  • Founded 1997 by Paul and Andrew Bassat and Matthew Rockman
  • Listed 2005
  • Operates 18 countries
  • $1.53b revenue
  • $180m net profit

Source: Seek FY19 annual report.

Goldsmith is also on the boards of Stars Foundation (alongside former Woolworths CEO Grant O’Brien MAICD and former federal MP Martin Ferguson) and Adara Partners. Stars Foundation works to help Indigenous girls through school and onto further education or into apprenticeships. Adara Partners is a charitable boutique investment bank where panel members agree to work on one transaction per year and the fees go towards running hospitals for mothers and children in Nepal and Uganda. Other panellists include David Gonski AC FAICDLife.

There needs to be a “broader discussion” on the role of directors and expectations of them, he says. “The reality is we are not there day to day; we are not the executive of the company. It’s a matter of making sure we have systems in place to ensure we are getting the right information and have an ability to interrogate.”

Goldsmith says the chair’s approach to leading a board is to set up the right structure for the relationship between the board and management so management feels engaged and can use the skills of the board. It is also his aim to establish a clear line about where the board works and contribution stops, and where management does their job.

“That is an open discussion with Andrew and he is open to the audit chair having the appropriate relationship with the CFO and finance, and for me to speak to anyone on the executive at any time,” says Goldsmith. “I encourage other directors to make sure Andrew and I are in the loop if there are any other conversations taking place.”

A good relationship between board and CEO entails respect on both sides, where there is no hesitation for anyone to raise an issue for discussion if the chair feels something needs to happen or wants the chief executive to think about an issue. Likewise, says Goldsmith, his door is always open to Bassat if he wants to bounce an idea off someone or has an issue with the way the board is dealing with something.

“The way I foster that is to just be really open,” he says. “We use all sorts of communication channels — SMS, FaceTime, a phone discussion or regularly catching up to chew over issues.”

In the year to June 2019, Seek earned revenue of $1.53b and, as of July this year, had a market capitalisation of around $7.6b. The company became a disruptive force when it, along with other sites such as realestate.com.au and carsales.com.au, stripped the hugely lucrative classifieds advertising revenue away from newspapers and permanently upended Australia’s media industry.

But now in its third decade, is Seek itself at risk of being disrupted? It is something the management team has considered, says Goldsmith. “We look at competitors that weren’t around then, such as LinkedIn and Indeed. There is a real focus on the competitive environment. We think about investments being made across the employment space to ensure we’re adding better value for our customers — essentially to protect and continue to grow the market position.”

In April, Seek announced it had paid $92m for a 50 per cent stake in online education platform FutureLearn, and $50m for a minority interest in higher education platform Coursera. It also appointed former Commonwealth Bank chief Ian Narev to the dual role of group chief operating officer and Asia Pacific and Americas CEO.

If the job of the board is to choose the CEO and oversee and monitor the company’s strategy, it raises the question about the role of the Seek board, which has had the same chief executive from the outset, and a stable long-term strategy. “That’s a good question,” says Goldsmith, adding the board will deal with both appointing a new CEO and, as it does now, engaging around strategy when required.

“For the company’s sake, my focus is on Andrew’s longevity and ensuring I help him stay motivated and interested, which he certainly is,” he says. “But eventually that will happen, whether or not I’m chair. There has been a broad long-term strategy, but there are micro-strategies within the various divisions. We’re in a very competitive environment with big global competitors in the jobs market. There is a lot of discussion around these sorts of things.”

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